Sherwood Forest’s Heathland

Even back in its days as a medieval Royal Hunting Forest, Sherwood Forest was never one continuous swathe of woodland. Open glades and sandy heathland were just as important a part of its landscape. Why? Deer and game sheltered in the woodland, but could not be hunted on horseback without open rides and gallops. On Sherwood’s poor, sandy soil, heather grows well. Clearings were carefully managed to stop open heath doing what it naturally will over time – revert to woodland. This was done by allowing animals to graze there. Sheep, deer and cattle kept the heathland of Sherwood Forest clear of birch and oak saplings.

An Endangered Landscape

Sadly, after Sherwood ceased to be a Royal Forest not just its woodland but also its heathland began to be lost. CoalMining, modern agriculture, conifer plantations and urban development accelerated the decline.

Britain has lost 75% of its lowland heathland since the 1800s. Nottinghamshire fared even worse. It’s estimated that over 90% of its lowland heath has now vanished. But Britain still has 15% of Europe’s remaining lowland heathland. So preserving what we still have left of this threatened habitat is of international importance. We MUST save what remains of Sherwood Forest’s heathland.

 What Is Heathland?

Heathland is an area where heather species grow – in Sherwood Forest they are ling (a local variety is hairy ling), bell heather, and in wetter areas, cross-leaved heath. Strictly speaking, heathland has a minimum of 25% heath species, but in Nottinghamshire acid grassland and/or bracken dominate most heathland.  Typical grasses are wavy hair grass, sheep’s fescue, and matt grass, with herbs such as harebell, heath bedstraw, and tormentil.  Gorse is usually present. Lichens and mosses are also important.

Above: Bell heather (Erica cinerea)

Heathland is essentially an open landscape but in Sherwood Forest with its scattered trees and scrub, oak, birch and gorse, it occurs mostly as rather small fragments. Lowland heath forms on nutrient poor, acid, sandy soil below 300m.  In Nottinghamshire it is mostly found in the Sherwood Forest area, on the ‘Sherwood Sandstone’ – which extends from Nottingham in the south to Worksop in the North.

 Why is it there?  Where did it come from?

After the last ice age most of the British Isles became covered by woodland (“Wildwood”).  Heath species existed naturally in clearings. Larger areas of heathland were created by man as he cleared woodland to create grazing, and used the wood for fuel and timber, allowing heath species to spread throughout the cleared areas. Although it was called common or wasteland in older documents, heathland was a valuable resource managed by man.  Grazing by domestic animals, deer and rabbits, and the harvesting of heather and bracken for fuel and bedding eliminated tree seedlings and prevented the open areas from returning to woodland by natural succession. These activities also prevented bracken from becoming dominant.

 Why Is Heathland So Ecologically Important?

Heathland is the only habitat for certain species, and the preferred habitat for others. Many of the plants and animals that live there have evolved over thousands of years, become specialised to suit that habitat, and are not suited to life elsewhere.  Nationally, heathlands support some of Britain’s rarest plants and animals.

Mention animals, and many people think first of the furry kind, i.e. mammals.  There are small mammals that live on Sherwood Heath, such as the stoat and the mice and voles that are its prey.  There are birds too, but the most important animals on Sherwood Heath are harder to see. They are invertebrates – small creatures without skeletons, such as insects, spiders, snails and worms.  Most people probably don’t worry about the plight of invertebrates but all species are linked in a web of interaction and the loss of one can have far reaching effects on many others and ultimately, perhaps, on people.

Heaths are important to invertebrates because there are many for which heaths are the only habitat. Some of the interesting insects at Sherwood Heath are:

  • The green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris) is one of the most attractive and easily recognised beetles. They are long-legged, fast-running and fast-flying predators.  The larvae make burrows in light, well-drained soil, where they wait for prey.
  • The Nationally Notable longhorn beetle (Strangalia quadrifasciata) is found in fallen logs.
  • 60 species of moth have been identified, including the Nationally Notable angle-striped sallow moth (Enargia paleacea).
  • The hornet (Vespa crabro) is found in Sherwood and often uses bird and bat boxes to build its nest.
  • Anthills are an important feature of the flat areas of the heath near the Visitor Centre.
Above: Common Blue Butterfly
Above: Common Blue Butterfly

Few birds are found only on heathland but many require open country without intensive agriculture, such as heathland.  Two declining bird species that may be seen on Sherwood Heath are the skylark and the barn owl. Some other birds seen are kestrel, sparrow hawk, green woodpecker, and yellowhammer.  Some nationally scarce birds we hope to attract are the nightjar, the woodlark and the hobby.

The common lizard is the only reptile seen regularly on the heath.

The landscape of heaths is attractive and, although largely man-made, has a wilderness character that is enjoyed by many for recreation.  Its historical value provides a strong sense of cultural identity.

Loss Of Heathland

It’s estimated that Nottinghamshire has lost over 90% of its former lowland heath. Coal-mining, modern agriculture, conifer plantations and urban development accelerated its destruction.

Britain has lost 75% of its lowland heathland since the 1800s. However, the UK still has 15% of Europe’s remaining lowland heathland. Preserving what is left is thus of international importance.

Heathland Managed & Supported By The Sherwood Forest Trust

Find out about some of the heathland that the Sherwood Forest Trust either manages or helps to manage by working in partnership with landowners and local volunteer groups.

A monthly donation supports our work to protect rare habitats and work with communities in ancient Sherwood Forest.

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